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NBA rosters churning more than ever. How did we get here?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video, and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Chris Webber was the prize of the NBA’s 2001 free-agent class. He was a somewhat young star – maybe even superstar – in his prime. Playing for the Sacramento Kings, he indicated interest in bigger cities. He also showed an affinity for his hometown Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, who were coached by former Piston Isiah Thomas. It looked like a high-stakes, wide-open chase.

Webber re-signed with the Kings on a seven-year, $123 million contract, which was viewed as a massive success for Sacramento. And for a while it was. Webber led the Kings to 61 wins and Game 7 of the Western Conference finals the following season. Sacramento remained very good for a couple more seasons.

But Webber’s athleticism began to wane amid injuries. In 2005, the Kings traded him to the 76ers for a trio of players on clunky contracts – Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner and Kenny Thomas. In 2007, Philadelphia bought out Webber with more than a season remaining on his contract.

And that’s how we got this year’s wild offseason.

Owners resented contracts like Webber’s – too expensive and maybe more importantly, too long. Webber was as good as advertised. So good, he could secure at age 28 a deal that guaranteed him a high salary well into his 30s. He just couldn’t maintain his production that long, and he was far from alone in producing that predicament. Many teams were saddled with long, onerous contracts given to formerly good players.

So, owners pushed for key changes in the 2005 and 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreements, the latter of which followed a lockout. Along with other situational differences, the landscape has transformed. Add unique choices of players and teams this summer, and we’ve never seen anything like this.

Just 57% of minutes played last season went to players who remain on the same team now. By comparison: A decade ago, 70% of minutes went to players who remained on the same team the next season.

The 57% is a soft figure. We don’t yet know who will actually play for the same team next season. Un-rostered players could still re-sign. Rostered players could still get traded or waived. But this late into the offseason, it seems about 57% of minutes last season will have gone to players who played for the same team next season.

If so, that’ll be the lowest mark in recorded NBA history.

Here’s how many minutes each season went to players who played for the same team the following season (since 1951-52, as far back as Basketball-Reference has individual minutes totals):

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While the percentage this summer created a new low, the decline isn’t linear. This year might have been somewhat of an outlier. Still, the percentage has been trending downward.

While some people in management have expressed despair about this new reality, remember, ownership-pushed policies sparked much of this. Here several key developments that led to this summer’s mass movement:

Shorter contracts

This is the simplest and biggest reason. The NBA has steadily decreased maximum contract length – from seven years if re-signing/six years if not to six/five to the current five/four. The more often players become free agents, the more often they change teams.

The owners’ goal was reducing deadweight contracts. And it worked. Players’ compensation is more closely tied to their production than previously.

But the consequence has been instability. Teams can move on from players more quickly, and – on the other side of the coin I’m not sure owners fully appreciated – players can move on from teams more quickly.

Stretch provision

The stretch provision – which allows teams to waive a player and stretch his cap hit across double the remaining years on his contract plus one – also helps teams alter rosters.

When waiving teams had take a cap hit in accordance with the player’s contract, there was less reason to waive him. The main benefit was a roster spot. But the cap hit was locked in and could become highly encumbering. It often made sense to keep negative-value players in case it made more sense to trade them later.

Now, stretching a negative-value player opens cap flexibility. Sometimes, it still makes sense to wait for a trade rather than lock in a cap hit. But there is more reason to cut loose players sooner through the stretch provision.

Rising salary cap

At the same time a larger of players are hitting free agency each year, the salary cap has significantly increased. It skyrocketed in 2016 then had a couple more years of steady growth. More teams typically have major spending more each summer.

That makes it more likely a player finds an outside situation he prefers to re-signing with his incumbent team, which typically holds advantages in paying him.

Trade relaxation

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement also loosened salary-matching parameters. With it easier to construct trades, more players get moved.

Star power

The era of stars staying put is long over. They don’t even need to wait for a perfect opportunity anymore. They can create their own pop-up super teams wherever and nearly whenever they want.

Contracts are so large either way, several stars have felt comfortable leaving money on the table – even super-max salaries – to get to their preferred destination.

With stars comprising a small portion of the league, the direct effect here is limited. But the trickle-down is large. Teams generally prioritize different types of other players when they have a star (veterans) vs. when they don’t (youngsters).

Several teams are still in the midst of that process. The Thunder traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but got expensive veterans like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari whom Oklahoma City might prefer to flip. The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard but still have other members of the championship core. On the other side, teams like the Lakers could do even more to push in for the present.

The 2020 championship chase appears wide open, which already led to this movement and could inspire even more. Many teams don’t look done.

They’ll evaluate chemistry as the season unfolds. So many teams are integrating so many new pieces. It’s one of the most important themes of the season.

And beyond.

There are real questions about whether this player movement is good for the league. Will fans struggle to build a connection with their favorite team? Or are there enough fans of certain players for this not to matter much? Has competitive balance been increased or decreased?

Chatter has emerged from the team side about limiting players’ ability to switch teams. Anthony Davis‘ trade request particularly caused a fresh wound.

But these dynamics are difficult to control. Unintended consequences abound.

Just look how we got here.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.